A Russian space mission was canceled at the last minute after an unexpectedly large leak occurred Wednesday night in the spacecraft docked at the International Space Station.
Dressed in spacesuits, cosmonauts Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitry Petlin were instructed by air traffic controllers to wait while air traffic controllers checked the leak on the Soyuz spacecraft. The spacecraft stopped shortly before 22:00 EST (03:00 UTC Thursday).
The leak appears to have originated in the external cooling circuit located at the rear end of the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft. Commenting on the spacewalk for NASA TV, public affairs officer Rob Navias described the spacecraft as leaking “in a very big way.” The video of the leak showed particles constantly pouring in from the Soyuz, which is an amazing sight. It could be ammonia, which is used as a spacecraft coolant, although this has not been confirmed by Russian authorities.
None of the crew members aboard the space station were in danger, including Prokofiev and Petlin, and cosmonaut Anna Kikhina. NASA astronauts Frank Rubio, Nicole Mann, and Josh Cassada; and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata. The leak was outside the station, not inside the orbiting laboratory.
Still, the leak raises questions about the reliability of the Soyuz spacecraft, and the return trip to Earth for NASA’s Prokofiev, Bedlin, and Frank Rubio. They were launched back to the space station in September on this Soyuz craft and are scheduled to return to Earth next spring. The leak lasted for three hours Monday night and showed no signs of abating.
Soyuz is a solid spacecraft, so it is plausible that there would be no impact on its ability to leave the space station and return to Earth. However, Russian engineers and NASA, assuming Rubio will be on board, will fly a replacement Soyuz to the station if they determine there is a problem. Soyuz vehicles are capable of autonomous launch and docking. However, this meant that the three crew did not have an emergency escape vehicle until a replacement bus arrived.
The station’s other four astronauts flew on the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft in October. Seven people cannot travel in that vehicle to return to Earth.
Given the length of the spill, NASA is likely concerned about the impact of all the ammonia on the surfaces of the space station and other docked vehicles. A lot of ammonia will evaporate from the surface of the devices over time, but that will certainly complicate operations as the US space agency launches its spacewalk on December 19th to install new solar panels.
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